1. Do I believe in God?
Probably the most commonly asked question in the history of mankind. The number of answers is almost as many. The old saying:
“Why does a Jewish person always answer a question with another question?” (The answer to which always is “Why Not?”) – is all on the nose: I believe in God only if you can give me a good definition of God and if that definition is reasonable. As there is no consensus on how to define God – when pressed, I HAVE to answer No, in order to be intellectually honest.
And still: In 2003 when Rabbi Miller wanted a vacation he asked a few congregants to give a Dvar Torah in his absence. When it was my turn, I started mine with these words:
God answers prayer through the change within us that the act of praying creates.
It means that the act of praying - in itself - has a powerful impact upon us.
However, I am convinced that there is no contradiction between defending an atheistic stand and this expression:
God answers prayer through the change within us that the act of praying creates. Because this formula about God answering prayer not only is quiet on the issue on what or who God is, but that it works even of you posit that there is no God. I am sure that all of us have been in Shul, listened to the music, listened to other people praying and praying yourself, without necessarily having defined what/who you are praying to. But the effect, at least on me, is that it makes me calmer, more harmonious, exactly BECAUSE the act of praying is so powerful. Therefore, it negates the need for definition of God and it even negates the need for God Godself. For this reason I am proud of the saying about God and Prayer.
When I was in my thirties, I got my hands on a book called “Nine Questions People ask about Judaism” (1), the very first of those 9 was: “Do I have to believe in God to be a ‘good’ Jew?”
The authors answered no and explained why. A door opened and it never shut behind me again after that; finally - I said to myself - I can be an ‘atheist’ and still be active Jewishly.
2. What does it mean that Man was created in the image of God?
“God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him” (2),
What does that mean? An interesting interpretation is that the meaning of ‘God’s Image’ is the faculty of reason. God is most ‘reasonable’, and Man was given that same trait. In other words, like Galileo said: God has endowed us with ‘sense, reason and intellect’.
3. How important is knowledge in Judaism?
Per our tradition, we are supposed to recite the Shemoneh Esreh prayer (Amidah), three times a day every day. For the observant Jew, it adds up to over 1000 recitations of this prayer per year.
The weekday Shemoneh Esreh consists of three sections,
the first three prayers make up the Praise (Shevach),
the last three Thanksgiving (Hoda’ah) and
the middle 13 are the actual Petitions (Bakashah), the ‘meat’ of the Prayer.
So, the first of the “essential” actual prayers, is Prayer # 4, asks God for Knowledge. It is the first thing we ask for, as everything else stems from knowledge. The prayer, called Binah, reads “You favor people with knowledge and teach mortals understanding. Favor us with your knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Blessed are You, Adonai, who favors people with knowledge.”
4. What is the central tenet in Judaism?
We’ve all heard: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). If this reminds you about another quote – just a few verses prior to this one that reads “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20), it’s not a coincidence. The Torah makes this statement, with varying words, not twice but more than 40 (!) times.(3), Clearly, this is central to Judaism, and the message is how we should treat minorities (4), and other groups since we know what it is like to be a slave in Egypt (5),
This is the text foundation for our commitment to Tikkun Olam, ‘repairing the world’.
Leaders of many Civil Rights, Environmental, Justice and peace organizations are Jewish with a what I would call ‘built-in’ sense of right and wrong.
By Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager (1986)
(B’reishit, Chapter 1, Verse 27, translation in Etz Hayim 2001).
As a comparison, the commandment to keep Kosher is mentioned once or twice, not that it isn’t important, but clearly less emphasized.
It’s a good thing that mistreatment of immigrants, minorities, refugees etc are a thing of the past and that all those issues now are resolved.
To my friend, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and spiritual leader of IKAR in Los Angeles, multiple winner of Newsweek’s “America’s most Influential Rabbis”: Thanks for the insight into the “strangers in the land of Egypt” point.